Early-stage entrepreneurs receive coaching, chance at $25,000 prize through new EMU program

Sixteen local entrepreneurs are participating in the first session of EMU's Executive Certificate in Entrepreneurship and Venture Challenge program, which launched in early January.
Sixteen local early-stage entrepreneurs are receiving coaching from industry experts and will have a chance to pitch for a $25,000 prize as part of a new certificate program at Eastern Michigan University (EMU).
EMU's Center for Entrepreneurship launched the Executive Certificate in Entrepreneurship and Venture Challenge program in early January. About 60 people applied, and 16 were accepted. Participants are now near the halfway point of the eight-week program, which was intended to include eight half-day in-person sessions as well as virtual programming. But because of EMU's COVID-19 protocols, the course began entirely online for the first three sessions.
Sanjib Chowdhury, director of the Center for Entrepreneurship, says the idea was to create a program for would-be entrepreneurs. He says new businesses often get financial help and investments once they're bringing in some revenue, but he and his colleagues wanted to help those earlier in their journey.
"We wanted entrepreneurs that had ideas they're really serious about but who didn't have a business yet," Chowdhury says. "Those are the entrepreneurs who don't get much help in terms of financing and things like that."
 EMU Professor of Management Morgan Milner.
Morgan Milner is a professor of management at EMU and an instructor for the customer discovery module of the entrepreneurship certificate program. He says the public response to the announcement of the program was "incredible."
"The initial demand for the program included ideas from across the state. We got a lot of buzz during the application process and final selection," Milner says. "We have some really sharp entrepreneurs with a variety of different ideas, and we're excited to see the type of innovations that will come out of this interaction."
Chloe Desselles, communication coordinator for the Center for Entrepreneurship, helped facilitate the first three virtual sessions and keeps the program running smoothly. She says none of the entrepreneurs have a fully-developed business, but a few have done some research, gotten patents, and are wondering where to go from there.
Chowdury notes that a number of alumni, individual entrepreneurs, and organizations like Ann Arbor SPARK and the Michigan Small Business Development Center make the program happen.
 Director of EMU's Center for Entrepreneurship Sanjib Chowdhury.
Each week of the program offers a module on a different topic, from customer discovery to how to build a board of directors to legal considerations. Both an EMU instructor and an industry expert interact with participants each week, and then participants can work on an assignment on their own time.
Milner, who has started several businesses himself, says that "all entrepreneurship originates from an idea about how to solve a problem."
It's an entrepreneur's job to find the people who need that solution, Milner says, and that's what he talked about during the customer discovery module.
"Participants got both big-picture instruction and on-the-ground training," Milner says. "They seemed to really benefit and be engaged."
 EMU's Executive Certificate in Entrepreneurship and Venture Challenge program meets at EMU's Student Center.
Milner says the structure of the program is powerful, with participants receiving advice and coaching from industry experts as well as academic experts. 
"Participants are receiving a deep-dive education in all aspects of the entrepreneurship startup process," Milner says. "Beyond that, they have the opportunity to package their ideas into a pitch and deliver that to a panel of judges."
Farmington Hills resident Jacob Overla, founder of Constellation 3D Systems, is one of the participants. He is hoping to produce desktop CNC milling machines capable of cutting materials like steel. An engineer by background, Overla says most CNC machines cost more than $30,000 and weigh a ton and a half. He's hoping to create a version small enough to use in his home.
"I think this program will give me some of the knowledge and tools needed to make my company succeed," Overla says. "The feedback and interaction with others is helping to refine my business concept and direct us to our next steps."

At the end of the eight weeks, participants will pitch their ideas to a panel made up of business leaders from across southeast Michigan. Chowdhury says the judges will decide if the $25,000 prize will go to one idea or if it'll be split between the two best pitches.
Five runners-up will be chosen to get a physical address and mailbox in Ann Arbor and at least 15 hours of conference room access.
The program will also award each participant with an executive entrepreneurship certificate. Chowdury says the certificate is a sign of credibility, showing that the entrepreneur is serious about their business idea.
 EMU's Center for Entrepreneurship Communication Coordinator Chloe Desselles.
"Whether they're going into a bank or talking to investors, the certificate gives them an opportunity to share their experience," Desselles says. "It would be a highly notable thing to have on a resume."
Milner says the certificate would not only be beneficial for attracting potential investors but also for generally instilling a sense of confidence in the new business owner.
"There is also benefit in terms of personal development and sense of efficacy gained from completing something they set out to do," Milner says. "The statistics for entrepreneurs show that roughly nine out of 10 ventures fail. A lot of that has to do with lack of understanding the steps and skills necessary to be successful. Completing a certificate like this, as well as the ongoing support services, boosts their chances."
Chowdhury says that after this pilot year, the goal is to offer the certificate program at least yearly, possibly twice per year. More information about the program is available here.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.
All photos by Doug Coombe.